If Orchids Are Promiscuous, Philodendra Are Whores

Very little that I write in this blog has anything to do with the title. I have always wanted to write a story using this title but never came up with one. There is, of course, a short history behind it that I will share.

The Conservatory at the Huntington Museum of Art is known locally for its extensive and extraordinary orchid collection—the result of its horticulturalist, Dr. Mike. (It also has some nifty poisonous frogs and axolotls.) In a lecture to the docents, Dr. Mike suggested that orchids are quite adapt at cross pollination, creating huge varieties of flowers. In his words, they are promiscuous.

Not long after attending Dr. Mike’s talk, I traveled to south Florida to visit friends who happened to be landscape growers. Over dinner, I shared my newfound knowledge of the plant world, specifically orchids. “Whoa,” exclaimed Ron, a botanist and grower. “If orchids are promiscuous,” he stated, “then philodendrons are whores.”

I remembered this conversation when I again visited my south Florida friends. It had been a while due to the travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic. In those few years between visits, friends have died; others are fighting cancer, dementia, and disability from diabetes among other ailments. We all have aged in isolation with various degrees of success. Getting together and remembering happier times and conversations was comforting and even healing. One friend texted me, “Your visit made me so happy. Wish you could have stayed . . .  like . . . for what time is left for us.”

Connections. Connections, with a healthy dose of kindness, are what will sustain us during this time of COVID, mad politicians, and the world’s autocrats.

The Blog – What Makes Me Write?

Hubris, I have plenty. I’m not lacking things to say. I have a great editor who has come to terms with my use of commas and, finally, people encourage me. I rarely listened to or read other bloggers (although that’s changing as I spend more and more time on WordPress).

How did it start? My publisher was looking for various marketing strategies. However, COVID destroyed any hope of a book-signing event. T-shirts and coffee mugs went on sale, but that kind of merchandising wasn’t in my wheelhouse or under my control. She suggested writing a blog.

I own that I started my blog for suspect motives. I wanted people to read my books. I still want people to read my books. I want someone to publish my novel. It’s just that now I also want people to read my blog.

My blog has no particular focus, although it does have a consistent perspective—left of center. Rarely do I choose the topic; rather, inspiration springs from some experience or bit of news picked up in the day. Sometimes a story comes to me quite randomly. In any case, I’m a long way from my days of writing on yellow legal pads and jotting down notes on scraps of paper. Decades ago, the advent of email allowed me to write a monthly group newsletter, called Dear Martha White, chronicling daily life and my misadventures. That email was my tether to friends and family whom I often had to leave behind as I moved from one place to another. Blogging is my tether to strangers.

What’s the point of this blog? Only that life provides endless stories of shared experiences filtered through individual perspectives. Sharing those stories and views connect us, adding to our understanding of the people who inhabit this planet. Write on.

Is It My Karma or Theirs?

I often say that I have good luck, even when things are bad or potentially bad. My Tibetan friends assure me that I have strong, positive karma, the result of doing good things in current and past lives. Since I can’t quite get my head around the idea of reincarnation—my own theory is that we inherit memories the same way we inherit eye color—I thus assume that my relatively good luck is the result of dumb luck and good timing.

My interest in why I manage to survive or minimize damage was aroused when my former office manager and longtime friend recently sent me this text: “Good morning! I was just telling Owen the story about when you were in your office holding him. He was an infant only a few months old. You were walking around, and your foot caught on the carpet. You started to fall over, and he would’ve landed underneath you. And then, somehow, like a ninja, you managed to twist your body around and fall on your back so that he wasn’t crushed. It was like the most graceful superhuman movement I have ever seen. He absolutely loved the story. You should’ve seen the smile on his face.”

According to an article in TIME, “The Psychology of Heroism, Random Luck and Surviving” defines many who are called heroes. Psychiatrist Deane Aikins, quoted in the article, discourages the idea that heroism is a choice. Instead, he says, “It may be that some people have stress hormones, Adrenalin, and cortisol that run cooler in dangerous situations.” I’ve also read that heroism is a way to achieve status. This is due to egoism rather than heroism, a need to be a savior.

Now that I’ve done a little Googling and research, I can see where I fit into all this: dumb luck, a savior complex, and an Adrenalin addiction. Works for me.

Art and the AH HAH Moment

To me, an ah hah moment is one that dramatically and viscerally stuns you into a new perspective—a challenge to your world view. While art gives me great pleasure, I do not expect an art exhibit to provide such an experience. However, the one I attended last week did.

The exhibit, The Obama Portraits Tour, changed for me the messaging behind the presidential portraits. The High Museum offered three free days to see the exhibit. Parking alone, if you were not a member, cost fifteen dollars! In January, I reserved a slot for March 9 and borrowed my brother’s membership card so that I could park for free. At the time, I was not aware that the exhibit was worth more than the usual cost of admission and parking.

I woke up the morning of my reservation with a pulled back muscle, and walking upright was a painful challenge. I almost blew off the exhibit, but I was already in Atlanta and figured that I would just run in, take a quick look, and leave. I placed a heating wrap around my back and set off to the museum. Just walking from the parking lot was painful. Happily, I arrived at the right time and was directed to the gallery.

The paintings are lovely, colorful, and expansive. However, it is not until you read/listen to the voices of the artists that you really begin to understand what symbolism lies within. Perhaps if I were a woman of color, I would have recognized much more without the assistance of the curator; instead, my blinders challenged my understanding. My ah hah moment happened while watching a video of the hall of presidential portraits in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I saw painting after painting of powerful men in their rigid power suits and stock traditional settings. Not so with President Obama or First Lady Michelle. Their portraits were full of symbols from their personal journeys and heritage. They were real and approachable, yet powerful and full of grace.

Was it because of the artists, the curator, or the subjects? I’m not sure. But certainly, the juxtaposition of the traditional portraits and these two conveyed a powerful message of change, the future, and equality.

The Rise of the Despicables

Americans are not deplorable, and Hillary Clinton should not have labeled them as such. In many cases, those she referred to were the overlooked, betrayed, or forgotten. They are those whom culture and technology has passed by in the name of efficiency, profit, and modernity. Many in the Rust Belt and rural America saw their life’s work denied, pensions pulled, and children placed at the back of the line for college admission because of affirmative action. They were scared, confused, and seemingly without a voice. Most were not the individual targets of overdue social policies intended to right past wrongs and make America better for all, nor of changes in economic realities; in some cases, they were the victims of corporate greed. The Democrats did not listen; instead, they built fences between people rather than invite everyone into the tent of democracy.

Trump, an iraphagus*, tapped into this anger and gave it a voice. However, the voice he gave it was one of hate and intolerance that turned good people into wraiths. The first real evidence of his handiwork was the January 6 insurgency. It continues in the present with such things as gerrymandering, anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, anti-choicers, anti-gays, and anti-public education movements. It has enthused and promoted groups like the Oath Takers and white supremacists.

These activities and attitudes fade almost to insignificance in the face of the current heinous rise of the despicables—those autocrats and dictators taking their page from the tyrants and killers of the past. Putin wants Ukraine. Hell, he wants all of the former Soviet Union. Xi Jinping will take Taiwan if Putin is successful; he will do it quickly if the West caves. North Korea will head south, and I heard Trump say that it is a great time to use Putin’s brilliant strategy to take Mexico. There are certainly despicables who are not territorial but equally odious all over the world; they are happy to stand by, even cheer on the new Cold War and the heated incursions. 

Ah, not to worry! We will probably die from climate change before we are destroyed by weapons of mass destruction. If you are as old as me, you probably hope that it doesn’t happen before you leave this life due to natural causes.

Damn, but what about our collective youngsters?

*A monster that feeds upon negative emotions

My Definition of Love: Ode to My Dalma

I have lived with my daughter and her family since 2010 in an autonomous “nanny unit” in the basement of their house—an apartment full of crafts, laptops, and travel mementos. We are connected by a staircase leading up and down from the first floor. My granddaughter was three when I retired from academia and joined them. She wrote this ode to me this Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2022. It is for me the definition of love.

Dalma who writes books like a never-ending abyss

And asks who loves her

Who is the ABCs and reading

Who is the world and English papers

Whose hands are like feathers

Is not here to talk today

Who calls me to say I love you

Who compliments me to say you’re gorgeous

Whose mind is like steel

Can’t come talk today

Travels the world day in day out

Who still walks all around

Is busy

Is a doorframe leading to a staircase

Is gone go away

Doesn’t hang around anymore

Is hiding underneath piles of paper

Who speaks to the world

Is walks and naps and clothes galore

Who goes up the stairs and down and maybe again

Is the book that is written and is never ending

Asking who loves her

Who loves her who

Finding My Roots

The family knew my father came from Sokolka, a small town in Eastern Poland. During various times in its history, it was Lithuanian, Russian, or Polish; for all intents and purposes, it was part of the Pale of Settlement—where a swath of land Jews were allowed to settle. While serving in Cambodia with the United Nations peace-keeping mission, I became friends with a Polish major named Darius. In late 1993, I met up with him in Warsaw, and we traveled together to Sokolka, the birthplace of my father. 

Darius and I went to a Jewish cemetery, containing maybe a dozen headstones; some were upright, and others were half lying in the dirt. A broken partial fence was all that kept the chickens out. Darius asked if I saw any familiar names. “No, I don’t read Hebrew or Polish. How would I know?”

Darius grunted and then exclaimed, “You don’t read Hebrew!”

“No, I don’t.” I huffily replied, trying to cover my embarrassment over my lack of language skills. “But here, take some stones to put on each grave, just in case one of them contains a relative of mine.” *

Then the people at the post office directed us to an elderly man—a sort of amateur historian of the events in Sokolka that ultimately drove all the Jews from the town. We met up with Henrik and his blonde, blue-eyed 8-year-old granddaughter at the site of the former Jewish ghetto, which had become a relatively modern housing block. 

Henrik told us that the cemetery had been left untouched because the German soldiers got spooked and were afraid to cart off any more headstones to use in building their camps. He proceeded to tell us the history of Jews during WWII in this tiny town—how some were put on trains for the concentration camps, but most were taken only as far as the forest and shot to death. My father left the town in 1907 as a toddler, to escape the pogroms with his family, long before the German invasion in the late 1930s. When his family lived in Sokolka, the area was part of Belorussia (now called Belarus). 

Darius asked questions as if he were my familiar, reading my mind, and Henrik answered. I stood immobilized, with hot hot tears running silently down my cheeks. Finally, I requested that Darius ask Henrik why he was a stone upon my people’s memory (like the stones we put on the graves). Henrik pointed to his little granddaughter and said, “For her, so she will know what happened in this place, so she will not forget.”

Then he told Darius that I should stay in Sokolka.

Why?” I asked. “Because we need pretty women, and the bread here is better,” replied Darius.

Months later, I was at the movies in the U.S., watching Schindler’s List. Although I watched the movie dry-eyed, I could feel the tracks on my cheeks burned into my memory from the tears I had shed in Sokolka.    

*A common Jewish cemetery custom is to leave a small stone at the grave of a loved one after visiting. Although there are various theories about its origins, rooted in ancient times, leaving a visitation stone has become part of the act of remembrance.

Do I Have It? Paranoia in the Time of COVID

Four vaccinations (immune compromised series), habitual mask wearer, and restaurant/theater abstainer—you would think I am protected. I work for the department of public health in the COVID Outreach Unit. I screen and register people every day before we give them a shot. Which ones are actually contagious? No idea.

However, Tuesday morning, I learned that my supervisor was seriously ill with COVID. We had been together at a community vaccination event this past Friday for about four hours. We were mostly in different rooms and both masked. I had been feeling fine until I got the notice that I was exposed—after which I began to experience every symptom in the known universe. I was under attack from an alien invasion.

Monique, one of the clinic’s nurses, took me into a back room of the infirmary and watched as I twisted a long Q-tip up my nostril. “Rotate three times in each nostril,” she instructed. Then she sent me off for fifteen minutes while the Q-tip soaked in some kind of solution. The result was negative. The test kit looks a lot like a pregnancy test—a card with a little window showing the result. I kept the card, which appears to resemble a cupcake decoration!

It took several more hours for all my symptoms to dissipate and for me to calm down. Yesterday, I took a second test to be sure. I’m leaving for Florida next week and couldn’t bear to be Typhoid Mary and spread the virus.

All this reminds me of the waiting room at a mammogram clinic when someone on the staff tells you not to get dressed because the radiologist wants to see you one more time! Deer in the headlights! Irrational fear! No wonder nerves are frayed, tempers are at a boiling point, and tolerance and kindness remain buried ideas beneath all the screaming and anger.

Get vaccinated. My supervisor is out of bed and feeling good. She has underlying conditions, is exposed often, and is at risk of infection. I’m quite convinced that vaccinations saved her life.

The Fire

This story, like those before, is a tale of community. It took place in 1996, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Perhaps besides being a story of good neighbors, its also a lesson for our time of great wildfires and how we should help our communities devastated by them.

My narrow street was a metaphor for the glaring cultural and economic gaps in Phnom Penh. Mansions and squatter shacks stood in stark contrast to each other in the same space. I lived in a small two-story house, with a wooden upstairs and a bottom made of cement and stone. Across a narrow dirt lane that fronted my little walled compound was a huge old pagoda that hosted a squatter’s village of unthinkable density. The front yard was made of cement, maybe 35 feet wide by 40 feet long. The stone bottom part of the house, which I must admit I had never entered, opened onto this cement courtyard. The big iron gates opened to the lane. Often when I left home in the mornings to go to work, I crossed paths with Vietnamese “taxi girls” coming home from their evening’s labors. Still wearing heavy makeup and gaudy, slinky dresses, they went inside their dingy huts to sleep away the day.

 As I settled into my new neighborhood, I began to get to know the people who inhabited hollowed out rooms in the pagoda wall across from me. At first, there were just smiles and waves as I came and went.

Then I started to take photos. Cameras were a rare commodity among the local people, one of the more obvious victories for the anti-tech reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge. Very few peasants had access to important event pictures such as wedding portraits, much less family photos. The cost of processing a roll of film was equivalent to a week’s pay for one of the families that lived across from me. Most of the expatriates working in Cambodia were on a holiday from their Western, modern, high-tech lives but, like all good “tourists,” we had our equipment if we wanted or needed it. I routinely took snapshots of children, families, and even special occasions when they finally got up the nerve to ask. I would get the film developed and hand out the eagerly awaited photos. Soon my neighbors were waving to me, shouting my name, and occasionally bringing me some sort of Asian delicacy. They waited patiently for the evenings when I would arrive with pictures. When they saw me crossing the lane with an envelope in my hand, all the shyness gave way to giggles, smiles, and the elders’ slightest bows of the head. We had no common language. We only had this little gesture of friendship and trust.

One day, I had gone home for lunch and a nap instead of sleeping at my office for the noon siesta. I smelled it before I heard it; I heard the roar before I saw it. The pagoda, which was hundreds of years old, went up like kindling, the flames soaring 40 to 50 feet in the air. Black smoke was pouring across the road, and a huge burst of flame gave off so much heat that I could feel it on my porch. I could see huge billows of black smoke spewing from the interior of the squatter camp; shouting people were rushing everywhere, carrying babies, meager possessions, prized TVs, and boom boxes. The flames climbed higher, but the wind was blowing in the opposite direction from my house. Khmer friends came over to make sure that I was okay; they turned off my stove and electricity and begged me to close my gates. “Shut your gates, mum!” they shouted, “Please,” they begged. “Close the gates before all the squatters run in here.” “No,” I yelled from my porch. “Open the gates wide; tell the people living in the wall to bring their belongings and children inside.” They came. They came with sewing machines and bedding; they came with toddlers and infants; they came until there was no room left and the gates were closed.

We stood watching as the entire shantytown of two to three hundred shacks became a wall of fire, an inferno of intense heat. Most of the expatriates on the street fled in their cars and locked their gates behind them, but the three of us closest to the pagoda stayed and kept our houses open. My yard initially looked like a flea market, but it quickly took on the look of a refugee camp. I bandaged toes, held little Vietnamese[LW1]  children in my arms to calm them, sedated one of the old ladies, and basically gave moral support to those known families who lived directly across from me.  Miraculously, we heard of only one death.

That night, six or seven youngsters, scared and nervous, came upstairs and slept in my room with me. They smelled like gerbils, only more sooty and dirty. Outside, little pink and blue mosquito- net tents sprang up like mushrooms across the courtyard. The old women and babies slept in the downstairs salon, or what was left of it. We[LW2]  had opened the doors to the bottom stone part of the house, where many stowed the few belongings they had managed to save, including motorbikes and sewing machines. I gave the key to a man who spoke a little English. Others slept in the yard, while most of the men stayed outside the gates and guarded what was left of their homes.

It was winter, and the night air was damp and cool. Inside the burned-out pagoda, families slept on damp, burnt earth; inside my compound, they slept on cold, damp cement. We set up a clinic on my porch and a friend, the doctor for the Australian Embassy, treated infants for exposure, colds, and dehydration. The Vietnamese that were now living in my compound helped with the lines of Vietnamese and Khmer refugees from the fire who came to the little clinic for help. The Cambodian Red Cross refused to help because so many of the victims were Vietnamese squatters, in Cambodia for work or to escape the Vietnamese government. The Cambodian government was committed to removing them from the country. Ancient enmities and claims that they took jobs from the locals supported the government’s position.  The International Red Cross gave into political expediency; rather than offend the government, it did not offer assistance, either. To make the situation more dire, the major humanitarian organizations refused to provide aid lest they run afoul of government disapproval. People were cold. People were sick. People were hungry.

I was the executive director of the Committee for Cooperation in Cambodia (CCC), a network of all the humanitarian organizations working in the country, but I did not have actual programs, resources, or staff to provide rice and other necessities for survival. I was able, at the risk of losing my job, to convince some of the less politically dependent NGOs, notably Lutheran World Service, to bring bags of rice to my compound. The organization wouldn’t actually be disseminating it…just storing it! Once 2.5 tons of rice were delivered to my house, the Vietnamese men who were living inside my compound carried the 100-pound sacks on their backs across to the burned-out pagoda and passed it out to everyone, Khmer and Vietnamese alike. They also distributed 500 sleeping mats as well as 300 mosquito nets and tarps. They worked while much of Phnom Penh stood by, indifferent, and watched.

As it happened, I had already rented a new house across town before the fire, so my guests and I had to leave my compound by week’s end. The majority of people had drifted away from the burn site, finding new places to shelter, but all my neighbors stayed with me until moving day. As evening fell, my driveway was lit by cooking fires, and I could smell the exotic Asian aromas as the smoke curled up towards my little porch, where several of the children slept under a net tent. Except for helping at the free clinic, most days I left for my office, emotionally drained from fighting with the heads of the large NGOs who wanted to skewer me alive for aiding the refugees against the government’s wishes, while my “community” went about their individual business of finding shelter and work. On the evening before I was to move into my new house, I arrived home to a frenzy of activity. Food prep was in high gear, the children scrubbed clean and blankets laid out neatly in a large circle. Using some sort of pidgin English, my ‘guests’ made it clear that they wanted me to join them for a last dinner together. Everyone had contributed to the community dinner, which was a veritable feast. They wished that I would live more than one hundred years. I sat cross-legged on the ground, surrounded by happy faces, with people eating pho and bánh xèo (savory pancakes), as I fumbled with my chopsticks and tried to make conversation. But words did not matter. We were celebrating life, we were celebrating community, and trust abounded.


Fever Signs

A middle school coach’s wife yelled racial slurs at the opposing team at a football game. Across town at a high school in the same district, a Christian Athletes guest speaker event went south when two teachers ordered their entire classes to attend the event, refused to let them leave the room, and subjected them to an evangelical revival. Now Facebook is the platform for and against hate speech and those favoring religion in school, or those claiming the necessity of bringing Jesus to save “our” children’s souls from those who believe in the separation of church and state, or religious freedom. None of these posts is civil, thoughtful, or useful. STEP BACK.

I take the temperature of people entering our health clinic. Anyone over 99.5 degrees is sent away. If we took the temperature of America, or even that of the world, we would be SENT AWAY.